001 What is Buddhism?
Welcome to "The clearing up doubts concerning the teaching of Buddhism in the three vehicles of Bodhi" series by the True Enlightenment Practitioners Association (TEPA). Today, we are presenting the first episode and we will take the occasion to briefly explain why we created these series.
Since 1997 TEPA has been propagating Buddha's Dharma publicly and is renowned in the Buddhist community for the clarity of its teachings. First of all, TEPA presents the teaching of Buddha in a faithful and intact way. In this respect all students in our Association are not only gathering theoretical knowledge, but they are also proving the global reality of Buddha's Dharma. The second characteristic of our teaching is that we are linking together Mahayana and Theravada or, in other words, we are talking about the three vehicles of Buddhism. For example, the liberation principles we teach our students are not only applicable to the liberation doctrine in the Agama sutras, but they are also consistent with Mahayana prajna sutras. This way of teaching which is quite rare in the Buddhist community of today allows us to link together and to present the entire Buddha's Dharma contained in the three vehicles sutras. The third characteristic is that our association is always trying hard to teach Buddha's Dharma in a simple, clear, easy and practical way; therefore, in each book and in every method of Dharma's propagation, we are clearly presenting the cultivation principles in order to allow everyone to put them into practice.
The activities of our association are carried out by a Sangha which is composed of volunteers who took clean Bodhisattva precepts; therefore, the students involved in these activities feel very well and comfortable. Thanks to TEPA's efforts over the past decade to propagate Buddhism, a large number of students could save time and energy as they didn't have to deal alone with the vast number of Buddhist books available. The students who are following our association teachings are usually able to progressively understand and grasp the whole Dharma structure in two to three years. Besides, the students can also learn easy to use and easy to remember methods for meditation. Along the course our students learn why and how to practice in order to attain enlightenment and what is the state of enlightenment and what is to see Buddha-nature. Thanks to these characteristics many people have benefited from this Buddhist course over the last decade.
In order to bring Buddha's Dharma to the attention of the general public, since 2010 TEPA has launched "The three vehicles of Bodhi" series for Universal Culture Television (UCTV). This series is its natural extension aiming at answering doubts about the teaching of Buddhism. Moreover, "Clearing up doubts concerning the teaching of Buddhism" series is especially targeted to general public and beginners, because it is common that people who have just started to learn and practice Dharma still have some doubts. We really hope to be able to use simple and in the same time right words in order to provide proper explanation and analysis to everybody. For that reason, we will look together at the questions which are the most common source of doubts when learning and practising Buddhism.
In this first episode, we will talk with you about what is Buddhism. No doubt that for many of our viewers this may be their first contact with Buddhism and in fact, when hearing for the first time about Buddhism, people often don't even know what Buddhism really means. A day comes when we all think about the meaning of life and ask ourselves questions: why was I born? What am I living for? What will happen after death and so on and so forth - we have doubts, and in these moments when we are trying to perceive this kind of mysteries, it becomes clear that we have affinities with Buddhism.
However, when it comes to Buddhism the general public often is not going deeper than what appears on the surface. For example, when seeing some temples with all kinds of flags and banners in front of them, people can mistakenly think that this probably is Buddhism! Or when going inside such a temple and seeing somebody with relatively unusual clothes or hat and who is, let's say, using a rosary and reciting incantations, we often will think that this is definitely Buddhism! Or even worse, when seeing some divination ritual, Abhiseca ceremony which consists in sprinkling water onto the head, Homa ritual i.e. making offerings into a consecrated fire and so on, or when seeing or hearing Buddhist terms, people could mistakenly believe that all this is Buddhism. In fact, this is only a fa?ade and does not represent Buddhism at all. Or for instance, several decades ago it was often heard about the so-called "to take refuge in religious life" as related to Buddhism. People's idea about this was that when someone, living in the society, was confronted by difficulties which he could not overcome, his best option was to find a place and once he got there to forget all the problems of the mundane world; this is the way in which the general public understood "to take refuge in religious life" several decades ago. At that time many people mistakenly believed that Buddhism was identical to this so-called "to take refuge in religious life" and that Buddhism was a kind of morose religion opposed to life; this was, of course, a misinterpretation.
And today, what other views concerning Buddhism can we come across? Nowadays everyone is convinced that Buddhist groups are some kind of charity organisations. Of course, the good actions performed by such groups help many, many people in need and also improve the public image of Buddhism; therefore, inevitably, most people would think that charity is Buddhism! But we would like to ask those who hold such a view a simple question: if Buddhism is only about charity activities, what is the difference between Buddhism and the Red Cross? In particular, we have witnessed in recent years the spread of the so called "discussion about religion". For instance, take the discussion between representatives of Buddhism and Christianity or of Buddhism and Islam, etc.; actually, they were getting together and then they were debating how to improve society, purify it and so on. If we look at these discussions about religion, we often find out that people would ask: religions are more or less the same, aren't they? Or, in other words, they would think that religion is nothing more than helping others and persuade them to commit good actions! For that reason, today for many people Buddhism looks like this and they will often say that what charity organisations do is more or less Buddhism. However, the truth is that from inside things are very different.
If we want to explain what Buddhism is, it is good to start from the word "Buddhism" itself. So, what is Buddhism ("Buddha" + "-ism")? We say that "Buddhism" is the teaching of Buddha (the Buddha's Dharma). But, actually, who is Buddha?
Actually, people consider Buddha only as a wise and holy man or as a mighty deity or yet as a god comparable to God in Christianity. However, we who are following the path of Bodhisattva have a deep knowledge of Buddha's greatness which common people cannot even imagine. For instance, our first perception of Buddha is that He has great wisdom and is almighty. At the moment when Buddha attained Buddhahood, He got all kinds of wisdom - for example, the great perfect mirror wisdom (ādar?a-j?āna), the wisdom of equality i.e. no distinction between me and the others (samatā-j?āna), the wisdom of wondrous perception (pratyaveksanā-j?āna), the wisdom of having accomplished what was to be done (krtyānusthāna-j?āna); thanks to all these kinds of wisdom Buddha has abilities beyond compare. Hence Buddha completely knows and understands every living being's destiny and karmic fruits realised, affinities and karmic relations and capacity to learn Dharma. Thus, Buddha is able to adapt his teaching in accordance with each living being's abilities and level of understanding in order to achieve the best results. Thanks to His equal relations with all living beings, Buddha cannot reject particularly any of them. On the contrary, He treats all in same favourable way without any discrimination. This means that Buddha will help all living beings hoping that everyone is able to make progress on the path of Buddhism. We don't have enough time to speak more about His great wisdom and abilities.
But even if Buddha has great wisdom and is almighty, He has nothing to do with the concept of God in Christianity, Islam, etc. For instance, Buddha cannot liberate a living being and this is a fundamental difference compared to the idea in monotheistic religions that people get everything from God. Actually, Buddha is more like a teacher, a great teacher, for all living beings. He wants to motivate people, to teach them, to let them learn by themselves what liberation is, and He wishes that, finally, everyone attains Buddhahood. So, Buddha cannot just offer us our liberation. Also, due to His equal relations with all living beings Buddha cannot judge them and decide who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Actually, from a Buddhist point of view going to heaven or to hell completely depends on our own behaviour or in other words, we reap what we sow. Buddha, full of compassion for all living beings who don't know what they should do next, is trying as much as possible to guide us in the most suitable way in order to help us avoid the three evil paths, namely to be reborn in hell, as a hungry ghost or as an animal. Of course, if we have very good fortune and we go to heaven, Buddha will be happy, but He will remind us that we will not stay forever in paradise. All this is quite different from what people think about "God" in monotheistic religions. So, even if we consider only what we discussed above, it is clear that Buddha who is great and unique is completely different from all deities, "saviours" and gods in monotheistic religions who are popular nowadays.
Moreover, Buddha is different from what some people say today, because they mistakenly believe that Buddha was just a great historical figure born 2500 years ago who propagated Buddhist teachings during more than 80 years and then entered nirvana. But, in reality, He is much more than just another wise and holy man as these people think. In fact, now Budda's Sambhogakāya (physical body) is still located in Akanishta heaven (the highest of the heavens of the Form realm), continuing to give benefits to all Bodhisattvas and sentient beings; actually, Budda's Sambhogakāya often appears in many various places in order to help all sentient beings. His body is quite different from what ordinary people can see.
We would like to take this occasion to remind you that according to Buddha's own words the next Buddha will be Maitreya Buddha. So, our current Buddha is Buddha Shakyamuni and the next Bodhisattva to become Buddha is Maitreya. According to Buddhist sutras there will not be another Buddha between Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddha Maitreya, no other Buddha will appear in between. In this respect, dear public, if you see or hear that somebody is pretending to have already attained Buddhahood, it is very advisable to go and check in Buddhist sutras whether or not there is the slightest ground for such a claim.
Now, after having said some words on Buddha, let's talk about his teaching (Dharma). We have just explained that Buddha is a teacher for all living beings and His teaching is called "Dharma". And what is the content of this Dharma? We can say that it is a base, foundation - Buddha is giving the right base to everyone in order to truly understand the causes and effects. He is explaining how to look on all these karmic relations (causation), or what to do to preserve our human bodies, or yet how to obtain great karmic rewards. These are the five precepts and the ten virtuous actions - they are the basis of all. Moreover, Buddha also teaches us how to liberate ourselves. As regards liberation we need first to understand what vexation is and after having understood its true origin and crucial point, we can move forward and talk about how to lighten vexations and then how to remove them. The purpose of this is to permit living beings to practice Buddhism and to attain liberation by themselves. But if while following this, we can already liberate ourselves, why Buddha also taught everyone something called Bodhi? What is it? We can read the most direct and immediate explanation of what Bodhi is in the Heart Sūtra, namely "Non-Arising, Non-Ceasing, Non-Defiled, Non-Pure, Non-Increasing, Non-Decreasing" or in other words, the peaceful heart that everyone has always possessed. So, Buddha teaches and guides us how to find this peaceful heart, how to truly see the Buddha-nature, and how, after attaining enlightenment and seeing Buddha-nature, to stay calm in front of all dharmas i.e. to keep our calm in all circumstances. This is, in general, the content of Buddha's Dharma.
But is it easy to hear all this in the outside world and to decide whether or not what is often presented as a Buddhist teaching is the real Buddha's Dharma? When it comes to Buddhism we often hear words like, for instance, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Nidānas, or we often hear people quoting the Heart Sūtra: "Form does not differ from its empty nature, and its empty nature does not differ from the form. Form is its empty nature and its empty nature is the form". Hearing all this we can say "Yes, these words belong to Buddhism!". But are we sure that they really represent the Buddha's Dharma - maybe we should give it a second thought? Words are nothing more than words. If we want to know if they really express the teaching of Buddha, we need to go deeper in details and understand the profound meaning behind them.
So, in order to further clarify the Buddha's Dharma for you we would like to present the instructions which Buddha gave to His disciples just before entering Nirvana. At that time Buddha said two things: "follow the precepts" and "follow the Dharma". So, the first is to respect the rules of behaviour and the second is to follow the teaching of Buddha.
As regards the precepts, no matter if we talk about Sravakas or Bodhisattvas precepts - they are all formulated by Buddha Him-self and therefore, they are complete and pure. It is clear that "follow the precepts" means that Buddha didn't want us to come close to any supernatural things. Even when Buddha was still in our world, He has strictly prohibited to His disciples to make use of their supernatural powers. So, dear public, if you come across any supernatural phenomenon or "Buddhist" rites related to such supernatural stuff, please, leave as fast as possible because this most likely has nothing to do with Buddhism.
One more thing: a teaching based on the precepts cannot be at any moment opposed to the social morality. In consequence, everybody should pay special attention, because we often hear about cases of sexual abuse under the false pretext of spiritual practices. The reason why such things can happen is because people believe that spiritual practices and religion are more important than the social morality. In this relation, if we base ourselves on the precepts it becomes crystal clear that Buddhism cannot contain anything which goes against the social morality.
Now, let's talk again about charity activities. People believe that these activities are shared by all religions and from this point of view they look more or less the same. Yes, of course, we should do good deeds, it is something a Buddhist does, but charity activities absolutely do not represent the whole Buddhism. Why? The simpler is to remember that Buddha taught Dharma during 49 years and then to look in the Buddhist sutras and to check which part of them is dedicated to encourage people to be generous and do good deeds. Actually, if we take all sutras, we will find only one section on generosity and charity activities. Therefore, it is absolute nonsense to pretend that the whole Buddha's Dharma is solely about generosity and good deeds. All this means that just doing good deeds does not represent the whole teaching which we received from Buddha so many years ago. Furthermore, let's consider the six paramitas of the Bodhisattvas: dana (giving or charity) is just one of them and there are five more paramitas to be studied and practiced. So, based on this, it becomes clear that charity activities or good deeds are something we should do, but it is not sufficient and Buddhism is much more than just this.
Now, let's come back to the "follow the Dharma" statement. What we want to share with you all is our hope that everybody will in the first place rely on wisdom and will follow the Buddha's Dharma and not the false interpretations of men. Consequently, it doesn't matter how close to your teacher you are, it doesn't matter how great reputation he has, or how big is your respect for him, what you have to do is to check if his words correspond to what is written in the Buddhist sutras. To see if there is a contradiction between what he is saying and what is written in the Diamond Sutra, in the Heart Sutra or even in the Agama sutras. We are saying all this hoping that everybody will follow Buddha's Dharma and will avoid fallacious teachings and interpretations. As regards the sutras we have just mentioned, since they survived for so long after Buddha left us, we can trust them. However, because of the long period which separates us from the Buddha's time some false sutras could inevitably sneak among them. Therefore, we recommend you to familiarise yourself with the Agama sutras, with the Prajna sutras or yet with the sutras which treat only the Vijnanas like the Lotus Sūtra or the Avata?saka Sūtra (in English: the Flower Adornment Sutra). All of these sutras are reliable and their content is correct. Now, we don't have enough time to explain this in detail, but we hope that nobody will touch the scriptures of the so-called "esoteric Buddhism" or Tantra. If, however, someone wants to study these Tantras i.e. Tantric scriptures, please, only read ?ūra?gama Sūtra! Please! If we are capable to rely on Buddhist sutras as a reference then we will be able to analyse and judge according to them without being influenced by the fame of our teacher or our friendship with him. In fact, if we think about the wisdom of the dharmakāya (i.e. our real learning of Buddha's Dharma in order to attain Enlightenment), we will have to go back to Buddha's words i.e. the Buddhist sutras and thoroughly check if our teacher’s words correspond to them.
Finally, we would like to tell you that the whole Buddha's Dharma contains two paths: the path of Liberation i.e. the way of the Arhats and the path of Bodhi i.e. the way of the Bodhisattvas. In simple words, on the path of Liberation we learn how to deal with our vexations and on the path of Bodhi we learn how to attain enlightenment and how to see the Buddha-nature and thereafter how to keep our calm towards all dharmas i.e. stay calm in all circumstances.
At the very end, let me share with you a little text from "Learning's funnies" by Liang Qichao where he says that it is very nice to bask in the sun during winter, but even if the sunshine is very pleasant, it is you who have to take the sunbath, the others cannot do it instead of you. This is the same like in the well-known Chinese proverb: "if somebody drinks water, only he knows if the water is hot or cold". We, the followers of Buddha, know how helpful the studying of Buddha's Dharma is for our lives. In fact, it will help to improve not only our present life, but even our future lives. This is something which deserves profound reflection. We hope that via this short conference we succeeded to show you how nice the Buddhist teaching is and that all of you will be interested in learning Buddha's Dharma.
This is all for today.